Healing an Injured Phrase

From Rabbi Avi Shafran, Am Echad Resources

“One of the 613 Mitzvot is ‘Tikkun Olam,’ to heal or repair the world,” declares the Social Action Committee of a Massachusetts temple. The assertion is characteristic of the widespread ignorance these days about Jewish basics, not to mention the misrepresentation of the term tikkun olam.

There are indeed 613 mitzvot, or commandments, in the Torah, but none of them is tikkun olam – a phrase that, of late, is as frequently invoked (Google reports 226,000 references) as it is erroneously defined.

The term has its roots in the Mishna, the earliest Talmudic source-material, where it is employed as the philosophical principle behind a number of rabbinic enactments intended to avoid social problems. For example, the institution of a legal mechanism that can circumvent the sabbatical year’s automatic cancellation of debts is justified by the concept of tikkun olam. As is the requirement that divorce documents include the signatures of the witnesses. Similarly, whenever tikkun olam is invoked by the Talmud, it refers to actions taken by rabbinic authorities to address communal concerns.

The phrase also has an eschatological meaning, as in “litakein olam bi’mal’chut Sha-dai” (“to repair the world through the kingdom of G-d”) clause in the Aleinu declaration recited at the end of every Jewish prayer service. There it refers to the end-point of human history, when idolatries will disappear from earth and “every knee will bend to You” and all nations “will give honor to the glory of Your name.”

And then there is tikkun olam’s meaning in Jewish mystical literature, where it is used to refer to the cosmically redemptive power of personal actions, in particular the performance of mitzvot, both ethical and ritual.

In recent years, though, the term has been widely employed by a number of Jewish groups and individuals in a novel way, made to mean the embrace of any of a variety of social, political or environmental causes – including, as one, tikkunolam.com, asserts, arms control, reproductive rights and campaign reform. Gay and lesbian rights are another item on that group’s list, although the only quote from Leviticus cited is “Love thy neighbor as yourself.” (Other pertinent verses in that book seem to have been overlooked.)

Redefinition of time-honored Jewish words and concepts, unfortunately, is nothing new. “Torah” and “mitzvah” and “halacha” (Jewish religious law) and “observance” have all fallen victim to Jewish Newspeak. But there is a particular irony to the trendy twisting of tikkun olam to refer to the issue du jour of the politically progressive.

It stems from yet another legitimate employment of the term, as cited by Maimonides in his magnum opus the Mishneh Torah (or Yad Hachazaka).

Near the end of that 14-volume compendium of halacha, the revered 12th century Jewish luminary included several chapters of laws concerning Jewish kings. In the final law of the third chapter of that section, he writes:

“[In] any case where someone takes human lives without clear proof [of a capital offense] or the issuance of a warning, or even on the strength of a single witness [as two are required in a Jewish court], or where a person hates someone and kills him [seemingly] by accident, a king is permitted to execute [the unjustified taker of life] in order to repair the world [“li’taken ha’olam”] according to the needs of the time… to strike fear and shatter the strength [literally, “break the hand”] of the world’s perpetrators of evil.”

And so, Maimonides informs us, there is yet another meaning to tikkun olam, the authorization of a nation’s leader to do whatever is necessary, “according to the needs of the time” – even suspend the ordinary rules of evidence in capital cases – to preserve the security of his society from those who seek to disrupt it.

No Jewish king exists today but, still – in the spirit of liberal-mindedness – we might engage in a little “expansion of definition” ourselves and consider how the Maimonidean concept of tikkun olam might pertain to our own society, leaders and times.

Reasonably, it would seem to advocate the right, in fact the responsibility, of the chief executive of a country threatened by murderous elements to take strong and unusual action to undermine those enemies of civilized society – even if some personal rights may be compromised in the process.

So, interestingly, the concept of tikkun olam would seem to argue most eloquently today for things like, say, the imprisonment of enemy combatants, secret wiretaps and surveillance of citizens.

It might not please those who enjoy waving tikkun olam like a flag, but the concept, accurately applied, would seem to more heartily support the Patriot Act than a ban on Alaskan oil drilling.

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22 comments to Healing an Injured Phrase

  • Chaim Cohen

    Rabbi Shafran, in his convenient and self-serving interpretation of Tikkun Olam, engages in the same sophistry as the targets of his critique.

    Apparently we agree that all branches of Judaism believe themselves to be the carrier of the true traditions of our forefathers. Rabbi Shafran from his corner of the universe and our more secular minded brethren from theirs.

    So long as Rabbi Shafran and his ilk refrain from their indefensible posture of exclusive truth, we can all agree to coexist in peace and harmony. After all there is room for much and varied Tikkun Olam.

    As our sages used to say after an unresolved heated debate in which the opposing sides firmly believe in the sole truth of their position, “ailu v’ailu divrei elokim chaim.”

    Rabbi Shafran, its time for tolerance and a return to your true religious roots.

  • Steve Brizel

    I disagree with R Cohen. No, Tikun Olam is refered to in no less than a statement of faith than the
    Aleinu prayer which is said daily and in as august a prayer as the Mussaf of Rosh HaShanah to state
    that our goal in observing all of the mitzvos is to magnify G-d’s presence as the King of the world.
    However, I think that it is wrong to state that the Torah reflects either a perspective that is either exclusively liberal or
    conservative. One can find arguments pro and con in Dinei Shmitah vYovel and much of Seder Nezikin ranging from compensation
    of injured persons to civil and criminal procedure to the corruption of the judicial system.

  • Leapa

    Mr. Cohen:
    Rabbi Shafran makes the entirely legitimate point that, as in most Talmudic, scriptural and indeed Jewish phraseology, there is a precise and definable meeting to specific phrases.
    Feel-good pop psychology has its’ place, perhaps in Hollywood or among the leisure classes.
    However, exposing the intellectual hijacking of technical terms is not sophistry. It is the advance of truth and education.
    The route to peace and harmony is the closeness which comes from common definitions – of words and ultimately of right and wrong.
    We can tolerate well intentioned people who cannot accept the yoke of a Jewish lifestyle more easily than conscious diversion of truth for less than pure goals.

  • Aaron

    “Chaim Cohen”, (no, I don’t believe that your real name), what exactly is wrong with believing what you believe is the truth. Every religion believes they have the truth. I just depends what you want to do to everyone else that defines tolerance. Just answer one question, do you believe messianic Jews deserve your tolerance as ‘elu v’elu’ or not, and why.

  • Chaim Baker

    I’m curious about something. Chaim Cohen calls for tolerance on the part of Rabbi Shafran.
    Personally, I didn’t see anything particularly non-tolerant in the Rabbi’s article.
    However, I’ve always wondered. Is it just me, or does anyone else find the term ‘his ilk’
    somewhat less than tolerant, perhaps even, offensive?

  • Seth Gordon

    Rabbi Shafran appears to be saying, in short, that (a) Reform Jews do not understand technical terms used in the Oral Law, and (b) the Torah grants more power to a Jewish king than the legislatures and judiciaries of many contemporary countries will grant to their own chief executives.

    I look forward to the rabbi’s next learned treatise explaining that (a) the Pope is Catholic, and (b) the sun rises in the east.

  • Yaakov Menken

    [Update: I had a comment here which responded somewhat sharply to my misunderstanding of Seth's point. My apologies to Seth and to readers, as I completely misunderstood -- not that he was being sarcastic, but what it was that he was being sarcastic about.]

  • Michoel

    Come to think of it “ailu v’ailu divrei elokim chaim” is another injured phrase in need of healing. The fact that there can be many valid interpretations does not mean that ALL interpretations are valid.

  • DMZ

    I guess Chaim Cohen believes we must ALL believe in pluralism. But, you know what? No one actually believes in pluralism, at least in my experience. Every Jewish movement takes the opportunity to beat down on everyone not like them. I mean, it’s obvious from the tone of his very post that he dislikes people of R’ Shafran’s “ilk”. What happened to love and tolerance?

    -DMZ

  • Chaim Cohen

    Leapa: My point in suggesting Rabbi Shafran engages in sophistry is similar to yours. If Tikkun Olam is not a basic tenet of our religion but has instead been adopted by those wishing to cloak their mission in the garb of the Torah, than Shafran is as guilty as they are. Indeed, he and his ilk (yup, that word again) do so with a regularity. Many of their proclamations are issued claiming divine origin when they are in fact weak or distorted interpretations of custom by unqualified individuals merely interested in the perpetuation of their self-interests. Can we agree that improving the human condition while “waving Tikkun Olam like a flag” is in fact a wonderful kiddush hashem?

    Aaron: So you object to my pseudonym? I have no problem with yours. While true that absolute truth is a credo of many religions and movements, I ask you to look at the results of this belief system (e.g. the Crusades, Nazis and of late the Taliban and Bin Ladenism were all bearers of the absolute truth.) Orthodox Judaism has many factions believing themselves the sole purveyors of the “truth” to the exclusion of their neighbors. Are you suggesting this is acceptable? Which leads us to your last point; I too have serious reservations over the bona fides of Shabbateans, the followers of Chabad-Lubavitch and Ger and would point out that the more exclusionary we get, the more we look like them.

    Finally, in response to those who accuse me of intolerance due largely to my “ilk” tic, I confess that I am intolerant. However, unlike Rabbi Shafran and his ilk (oops), I limit my intolerance to an intolerance of intolerance.

  • Aaron

    So, Chaim, you do believe there are movements in Judaism that don’t speak the truth, and ‘eilu v’eilu’ doesn’t apply to them. Ipso facto, according to you, you are intolerant. Or are you the sole decider of who is intolerant? By the way, when is the next crusade being led by those violent, intolerant Orthodox Jews? I’m getting bored here in my office.

  • Debbie

    I believe that Chaim is not angry about this post but already came with a bias that people who are “to the right” are fanatics and are automatically exclusionary.

    The post was only pointing out the “traditional” definition of Tikkun Olam according to the sages of the Talmud, the author of the Aleinu prayer, and Maimonides (all of whom I highly doubt were unqualified individuals with an agenda).

    Tikkun Olam was a great kiddush Hashem when it was combined with the mitzvah of Tzedaka. But when you take the term and twist it to be used for things totally unrelated to mitzvahs there is a perversion of the definition.

    But languages and meanings of words change with time and perhaps that is just what has happened with the term Tikkun Olam. As has already happened with Mitzvos (any good deed vs when it is traditionally meant commandments from Hashem), Kosher (anything that is appropriate vs things appropriate under Hashem’s commandments), and of course Kabballah (something any person can learn and follow vs some mystical book that only people knowladgeable about Judaic studies and is old enough to have sufficient life experiences should undertake).

    These changes from the original definitions could be viewed as bad or they might be good. But you can not deny that they are not the original meanings.

  • DovBear

    Rabbi Shafran fails to remember two things (aside from the rather obvious details about George Bush being neither Jewish nor a king.)

    First, a Jewish King was given this great power, because he was imagined to be the Pure and Humble Servant of God. His presumed goodness, and loyalty to the Torah was meant to function as a check on his power. An American president is entitled to no such presumption of Goodness, which is why the Founders imposed serious checks on his power. Second, as the Book of Kings dramitically demonstrates the king who is also a Pure and Humble Servant of God is a chimera. He never existed, not even when the Temple stood.

    Rabbi Shafran argument is no good not because Bush is bad, or because the Rambam was wrong, but because the King who was worthy of the power Shafran wishes Bush to have, has never in human history existed.

  • Bob Miller

    It’s not our duty to tolerate fiction dressed up as truth. Some healthy intolerance has kept Judaism from being swept away altogether by inauthentic movements that were popular in their time. The decay of our general Jewish society caused by such movements, whether these meant well or not, is all around us. We should be at least as judgmental about activists who purport to fix society as we are about car mechanics and plumbers.

  • Ari

    Amen, Debbie – good post.

  • DMZ

    “Can we agree that improving the human condition while “waving Tikkun Olam like a flag” is in fact a wonderful kiddush hashem?”

    Improving the world is indeed a wonderful Kiddush Hashem. Distorting traditional Jewish thought and history (which is what casually redefining Tikkun Olam is) is not. Debbie’s really brings this point out. This isn’t an either-or situation – just find a new phrase for it.

    “While true that absolute truth is a credo of many religions and movements, I ask you to look at the results of this belief system (e.g. the Crusades, Nazis and of late the Taliban and Bin Ladenism were all bearers of the absolute truth.)”

    It turns out the Nazis, crusaders, and radical Islamists also:
    1. Eat
    2. Sleep
    3. Breathe

    I think you know my point, which is that correlation is not causation. Comparing your fellow Jews (of any stripe!) to these groups is stunningly insensitive, and you really should be ashamed of yourself. Indeed, the problem was not that they thought they held absolute truth – it was that their absolute truths had no room for anyone else. This is, of course, diametrically opposed to any Jewish thought I’m aware of, which accepts the presence of non-Jews in this world as almost necessity.

    As for your pseudonym, I think you’re just a coward hiding behind the anonymity the Internet provides so your constant slander of Orthodoxy doesn’t actually impact your real life. Not all of us are cowards – see below.

    -David Michael Zakar (http://david.zakar.com)

  • Edvallace

    “Indeed, the problem was not that they thought they held absolute truth – it was that their absolute truths had no room for anyone else. This is, of course, diametrically opposed to any Jewish thought I’m aware of, which accepts the presence of non-Jews in this world as almost necessity.”

    Very well put!

  • Seth Gordon

    [DMZ:] Improving the world is indeed a wonderful Kiddush Hashem. Distorting traditional Jewish thought and history (which is what casually redefining Tikkun Olam is) is not.

    So when you hear someone refer to a cheeseburger or a ham sandwich as “treyf”, do you rebuke them for redefining treyfah?

  • Alexander

    Shafran’s objection is one of semantics. Perhaps he is right that saving the enviroment is not a “tikun olam” in the original sense, but so what? That’s not an argument against saving the enviroment. It’s just an argument for calling it something else, which is a very trivial argument indeed.

    Furthermore, where is his argument against the Kabbalists of Sefad? According to the Mishna and the bit of Maimonides he cites tikun olam means to protect the world from evil, but the Kabbalists took it to mean imbuing the world with holiness. These aren’t the same thing.

  • DMZ

    “So when you hear someone refer to a cheeseburger or a ham sandwich as “treyf”, do you rebuke them for redefining treyfah?”

    No, but I probably should, considering how few people seem to know the origin of the word. “Not kosher” suffices just fine.

    -DMZ

  • DP

    with all the comments here on chaim cohen’s post and the nature of what rabbi shafran wrote about, i’m really surprised no one picked up on one particularly ironic phrase: “all branches of Judaism believe themselves to be the carrier of the true traditions of our forefathers.”

    i wholeheartedly respect the pride our fellow jews have for upholding the traditions of their forefathers. we all want to be in sync with what came before and this is part of what makes klal yisrael so unique – the spiritual magnet implanted within each neshama that yearns to be connected just won’t let go that easily. and while time marches on and we find ourselves in new worlds within each successive generation, we are challenged to find meaning within new scenarios and changing realities…the truth is that anyone who wants to believe that they can remake judaism, as as we each travel down our separate paths, and refashion it in their own image was granted the right to this belief by virtue of free will (bechira). but engaging in this pursuit, and then calling myself a “carrier of the true traditions of our forefathers” would mark me as either really misinformed about the original material, or perhaps really deluded. our forefathers, as a united whole, were orthodox. yes, of course there were always those whose observance slipped from the optimal (just as “even” none of us – the orthodox today – are perfect), but they were still orthodox. (see lawrence kelemen’s excellent piece re this in jewish action summer 1999 entitled TRACING THE TREE OF LIFE)..)

    “halacha” (law), “mesora” (tradition) and “emes” (truth), like “tikun olam”, actually have real meanings. they are not subjective terms. “tikkun olam” begins with “tikkun atzmi” – changing myself. only once i’ve effected change within myself can i hope for change in the larger world around me. remaking or reinventing torah concepts around what i want to see happen – changing the standards, the qualifiers, and the rules – just doesn’t cut it, unfortunately. and doing this and then thinking we’re carrying on the traditions of our forefathers – well…

  • 4jkb4ia

    Rabbi Shafran is correct. Tikkun Olam is not in and of itself a mitzvah. The liberal use of “tikkun olam” can be reduced to the pursuit of justice instead. I looked up the section on Luria’s use of the phrase tikkun in Scholem and found the interesting statements that Luria finds the most important expression of tikkun olam to be prayer, kavanah, and the unification of the name of G-d. That said, DovBear is 100% right.